Good Journalism, Crap Journalism, and Everything in Between

On Monday I found myself unexpectedly caring for a pre-schooler all day. It seems there is a holiday in America known as President’s Day. We didn’t have it in Mexico and the last time I remember noticing it was as kid when it was attached to something called “ski week.” Yay, no school!

What is the point of this holiday? Why would we want to honor these morons? Most presidents have been nothing but trouble. What, James Buchanan and George W Bush need a special day? It’s like having a holiday called Children’s Day between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Every day is children’s day, kid.

Freelancers cannot afford to celebrate such silly holidays and I have ignored it all my adult life until I found myself in the parking lot of a pre-school realizing that there were no teachers. No school. Yay.

So, after a full day of sword fights and museums and generally throwing my child around, I was thrilled to be invited to a potluck President’s Day dinner (no doubt commemorating the time that Taft went back for a third helping and realized there was no more food, so everyone chipped in to top him off).

Managing a frenetic child alongside appetizers and wine while having pleasant conversations is surprisingly easier than doing it alone. As I discussed the finer points of the future of journalism while holding a child by one leg who was wildly swinging a lightsaber, I heard an interesting comment.

“We don’t need National Geographic anymore. I get the same information and sense of adventure from blogs.”

I’m paraphrasing, since I didn’t have my notebook and was dodging a light saber at the time. The speaker was a highly educated person who teaches college students. Indeed, their class even begins with a segment on the media.

It was a familiar idea to me because I used to think the same thing before I became a journalist. Information is information. Blogging is just another form of journalism – just as good as all those fancy “professionals.” And then I tried it.

Having watched how the sausage is made for more than a decade, I can tell you there are a thousand ways to do truly terrible journalism that the average reader will never even notice. In fact, I guarantee you you have read some real crap just this week without realizing it.

Good journalists go to the places they are writing about. They talk to the local people and wander around getting confused and lost. Some of them risk their lives and others watch their friends and sources die or get injured or tumble down the well of PTSD.

Good journalists get paid. Paid well enough to do the work but also well enough to raise a family and keep doing the job so that they can become experienced journalists – a rare and precious commodity today. Older journalists are not necessarily better than younger ones but they are usually better than their younger selves. God knows I am.

Good journalism also gets fact-checked. Not by the author, who usually makes the same mistakes the second time through, but by an independent fact-checker. Anyone who has been vigorously fact-checked knows that no matter how solid you think a story is, it’s littered with mistakes.

When I brought up a few of these ideas in between gulping down wine and battling a tiny Sith lord, the teacher casually said the solution is simply to mistrust all media. They’re all biased and crap.

I don’t blame them for their comment – kicking the media is a national sport today. But there is a huge difference between good journalism and bad (having personally done both). And there is good stuff out there; not all sausages are Walmart hot dogs.

Readers just can’t see everything that goes into good and crappy journalism. And we all assume the stuff we read is good. Do you know how experienced the writers of your news are? What they get paid? How many stories they do a day?

How many news stories that you click are created by actual news outlets and how many by vested interests? Are you sure? Do you know how many stories you read that get independently fact-checked? Chances are, very few (certainly not this one).

So, I propose two solutions to this problem. First, I’d like to see some kind of LEED certification for journalism. Criteria would include pay for the journalists, money for travel, real fact-checkers, printing corrections when they are wrong. Are there experienced writers at the outlet or is everyone under 30? How do they get their money? How much time do they have for stories?

These, plus dozens of other issues that we navel-gazing journos wring our hands over will be put into a meat grinder and turned into copper, bronze, silver, gold and platinum ratings. Read this Vice piece if you want, just know that it’s got a bronze article.*

In order to vote with our pocketbooks, consumers need an easily digestible guide. I’ve seen it in seafood, human rights, and dozens of other spheres where you think to yourself, “These people would be out of business if their consumers knew what they were doing.”

And the second solution is to give journalists their due. Sure, some of us are simply crappy journalists. Such people exist and every one in the business has met one. But most of us are doing the best we can with very limited means. I’d say we fare better than presidents at least.

So if I have to manage my kid alone for a day in February, let it be for people who actually deserve it. Instead of a day for pampered, selfish, mostly mediocre megalomaniacs, let’s call it Journalists’ Day. And every year, let’s get together and throw a potluck for a local journalist.

Please? We are really very hungry.

*And yes, I’m sad to say that The Last Word on Nothing would not fare well on these measures. Unpaid, unchecked, generally unfettered. But you’d still read us, right?

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